By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
Heather Sutherland was excited to learn her public school system was
using laptop computers to teach elementary students such as her
daughter. Until, that is, she found out parents were expected to pay
the nearly $1,500 cost.
"I said, 'What? You must be joking,' " Sutherland says. "I think it's
unfair that the (school district) is requiring us to 'pay to learn.' "
The public school system in this quiet city 27 miles southeast of Los
Angeles is pushing the frontiers of computer technology in the
classroom with a program that puts a laptop computer into the
backpacks of children as early as first grade. It is pushing the
boundaries of financing, too, by asking parents to pay $500 a year for
three years so each of more than 2,000 elementary and middle school
children can have their own Apple iBook G4 laptop.
But asking parents to pay for it isn't.
"I can see where that issue raises concerns," he says. "I'm not aware
of anyone else who has tried that."
The Fullerton program, at four of 20 district schools, has created a
storm of controversy for the school system and its superintendent,
Cameron McCune. It also has raised broader questions about how far
public schools here and elsewhere can go in using costly technology in
the face of tight school budgets and limited funding.
Some parents worry that whatever its educational benefits, the program
has created an expensive burden for struggling families and has forged
new divisions in the public schools.
Sutherland, who kept her 11-year-old daughter out of the program, is
concerned that it creates "a horrible form of financial segregation."
"It's mind-boggling that they would even suggest such a thing,"
Some parents say the financial expectations and price tag violate
California's constitutional guarantee of a free public education -- a
principle also in other state constitutions. The parents are
threatening a lawsuit and have enlisted the help of the American Civil
"The California constitution is very, very clear: My children attend a
free public school," Sandra Dingess says.
Dingess moved three of her four children to another school within the
district to avoid the big computer bill and what she says was the
embarrassment her children faced from being unable to pay. Her fourth
child, an eighth-grader, remained in the program for a final year.
McCune, who created the program, acknowledges that his school system
is trying something controversial, but he says lower-income families
can get help paying for the computers. "In all four schools, nobody
has been denied access because of a lack of ability to pay."
There are other concerns. Some parents say transferring to another
school is not fair. Others object to requests for tax returns and
financial records to obtain aid. "We don't think you have the right to
ask for that information," Dingess says. "You're not the IRS. You're a
Computers now common in class.
Schools have come a long way in embracing technology in the past
decade. More than 99% of public schools had Internet access by 2002,
according to federal statistics. It is commonplace for even elementary
classrooms to have one or more computers.
In high schools, computer labs with multiple machines allow students
to research subjects and type up and print papers. The computers also
let kids use Internet-based prep courses for college entrance exams
such as the SAT and fill out online college applications, National PTA
official Chuck Saylors says. "At the PTA, we would encourage
technology in the classroom,' says Saylors, of Greenville,
S.C. "Whether you are (going to be) a food server in a restaurant or
the CEO of a major corporation, every child that leaves school now,
regardless of what they do in adult life, is going to have to have
some knowledge of technology."
Well-stocked labs lessen pressure on parents to buy computers for
their children, Saylors says, but "not every school district and not
every family can have the resources to make that happen."
He says teachers, in assigning outside work, generally are sensitive
to differing computer resources in their students' homes. In
Greenville, he says, the school system has invited big employers to
donate their used computers to the schools, which in turn lease them
to the families of students for as little as $10 a year.
"We'd love to see computers in classrooms and in every home, but
realistically that's almost impossible," Saylors says.
That brings up the issue of disparity in education.
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association union,
which represents 2.7 million teachers, says the issue isn't computers
"If there was (adequate) funding there, no kid would have to worry
about whether or not their parents choose for them to have a
computer," Weaver says.
Attempts in recent years to start similar programs with parents
purchasing laptops were suspended in the face of controversy at a San
Diego County school district and in Palo Alto, Calif. In the face of a
potential suit, Fullerton's elected school board has halted plans to
expand it to all sixth-graders next year and ordered a reassessment.
Educational value worth the price?
Students seem to like the brave new world, though what they're
learning may not be so educational. In Fullerton, computers are used
in all subjects and as much as 60% of the class work. Some of what
they learn is how to e-mail friends and download music.
"It was fun to have around and to use for my own purposes," says Riley
Hall, 13, who was in the program last year but transferred to another
school for eighth grade. "But it didn't make school any better or more
challenging. ... A lot of it at school was to show off what you know
In designing Fullerton's program, McCune points to Henrico County,
Va., where 24,000 laptops have been put in the hands of high school
and middle school students, and Maine, where 38,000 laptops have been
provided to seventh- and eighth-graders. In both cases, the county or
state provided the laptops. Parents weren't asked to lease or buy
Fullerton officials say their system can't afford that.
"Our problem here in California is we're underfunded so much, we just
don't have the money to pay for it," school board member Minard Duncan
says. "I don't blame the parents for objecting to paying for what we
call free public education."
Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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